Timeline: A Bell Pattern Who Traveled Far

Imagine that you’re a bell pattern.

Your name is Timeline.

You were born somewhere in West Africa.

And you sound like this: 3 + 3 + 2.

That’s eight counts long but unevenly divided into two threes and one two.

People like you because your unusual design makes you syncopated, endlessly interesting, and fun to hang out with.

In fact, as a kid you loved to play with dance drumming groups in the village where you grew up.

You hardly ever slept!

You were the little guy who repeated your high-pitched part insistently while the other musicians smiled and played their own angular patterns. Everything meshed together like a finely woven kente cloth that spun itself out and out and out–a communal musical loom.

Since traveling to the Americas centuries ago (itself a long story) your services have been in high demand in all kinds of music, far too numerous to track. But even today everyone wants a part of your designs, your energy, your rhythmic wonder.
You’re a hit machine! Listen to yourself in some pop hits of the moment for instance:

In the guitar part in “Don’t Let Me Down” by The Chainsmokers:

In the keyboard part in “This Is What You Came For” by Calvin Harris:

In the keyboard part in “Cheap Thrills” by Sia:

In the guitar part in “Treat You Better” by Shawn Mendes:

And with little variations (you’re easily bored) in the keyboard part “I Took A Pill In Ibiza” by Mike Posner (Seeb remix):

Well done Timeline. You’re a bell pattern who traveled far.

Notes On An R&B Concert

We arrived somewhat late into D’Angelo’s set at the Forest Hills Tennis club on a warm early evening in June, but we could hear the bass frequencies from several blocks away. Emerging from the stairwell into section six of what used to be a tennis court felt like entering a party with everyone facing a giant boombox; the music was pleasantly loud—loud enough that you could feel the drum hits vibrating your body. Our seats were in the very last row, with a view downwards. It was hard to see the performers as anything more than stick figures hundreds of yards away and our distance from the stage created a disconnect between seeing and hearing: the band’s gestures were always a half second ahead of their sounds, making their playing look like an out of sync karaoke performance.

But everything about this show was live and D’Angelo’s vocal performance was excellent. His voice does all the things a great R&B voice should, and he has a masterly sense of pacing, building a song without you realizing what’s happening. For a while it just sounds like repetition but then suddenly—kapoww!!—there’s a tutti stop and start, a hit on the downbeat a few times, a reset, and you realize how complete is his control of your sense of time unfolding. No doubt the band rehearsed these too numerous to count stops and starts and shifts of texture, but still they sounded spontaneous—like an endless stream of micro-variation. In D’Angelo’s hands, a four-minute song easily becomes double that which is remarkable because you wouldn’t think that a few chords and 4/4 backbeat could sustain this kind of development, but they can. It’s all about the variations.

Looking around me during the performance, I was struck by how useful D’Angelo’s music was to so many different people, how everyone was adopting it for their own ends, maybe even how people were remembering when they first heard it. Over there, couples swaying to the music together. Over here, three women multitasking—taking selfies together while singing along. In front of the stage I saw what looked like audience members having emotional meltdowns from being within ten feet of the famed singer. No matter where they were sitting or standing, everyone here was a fan and knew the big hits like “Brown Sugar” (even me), turning some songs into massive sing-along choral pieces.

I was particularly struck by the funky virtuosity of D’Angelo’s drummer, Chris Dave. On one song he did something with his hi hat playing—playing off-beat hits that appeared to move further and further off the downbeats by degrees of a sixteenth note which had the effect of making his snare hits on 2 and 4 sound increasingly unlikely to happen at the right time, yet somehow he kept it together. It was a kind of aural illusion as Dave played with the audience’s sense of the downbeat’s inevitability; the effect deepened the groove and made it all that more funky by inserting chaos into the rhythmic flow. You never knew how would get back to beat one, but he always did.

As Dave played what sounded to me like patterns that traveled further and further out from the constraints of the 4/4 R&B beat, I realized that after D’Angelo’s voice, funky grooves were the most important aspect of this concert. It was the grooves that made D’Angelo’s songs pop and so on our way home after the show I thought about all the good things good grooves do:

groove is what the musicians make together;
groove is what sets the parameters for the musicians to go off of and return to;
groove is what the audience responds to and interacts with—
what they sway and dance to;
groove gives the audience a way to evaluate the effectiveness of the music
(not once did the groove drag or rush; it was in complete control of itself, taking us along for its surprising ride)
groove is what suggests other things outside of music;
groove is what makes this music what it is.

On The Drumming Of Tony Allen


In his memoir Tony Allen: An Autobiography of the Master Drummer of Afrobeat (co-authored with Michael Veal, Duke University Press, 2013), the eminent Nigerian drummer recalls the influence of American jazz innovators on his own musicianship. It was in the playing of the African Americans such as Elvin Jones, Art Blakey, and Max Roach that Allen heard a familiar sound:

“The way they were drumming, it had all the spirituality and all the celebration in it. It wasn’t English. It wasn’t Western. It wasn’t what Gene Krupa was doing. It was a whole different language. We should have been playing the drum set like that in Nigeria. After all, it originally came from here. They took it, went there to the Americas, polished it, and sent it back to us in Africa.”

“Guys like Max and Elvin and Blakey and Philly Joe [Jones], they were telling a story on the drums. Krupa wasn’t doing that. These guys were telling a story by playing different rhythms, and they were doing it with independent coordination. That’s the way the drums should be played, man” (46).

Intriguingly, part of Allen’s inspiration for his polyrhythmic Afrobeat style came from his initial misunderstanding of what he heard the American jazz drummers doing on their recordings. “To me it was impossible” he said, “that it was only one guy playing all this stuff” (50). Allen recreated the sound of what he thought was more than one drummer playing at once.

Here is Allen drumming Afrobeat in the recording studio. Notice how supremely light and relaxed his touch is:

My full review of the book is here.

A Wishlist Of Musical Plenty

Give me better music,
more interesting and compelling music,
more groovy music,
more transcendent music,
more euphonious and euphoric music,
more logical and sensible music,
more noisy, out-of-tune, lifted-up-over-sounded music,
more unpopular music,
more unforgettable music,
more peopled music,
more anonymous music,
more goal-oriented music,
more soundscape music,
more mindful music,
more wandering music,
more religious music,
more quieting music,
more dubbed-out music,
more not-for-sale music,
more generous music,
more enduring music,
more award-lacking, unheard-of music,
more flowing music,
more off the grid music,
more unplugged music,
more spontaneous and improvised music,
and more plentiful music.

On The Rhythms And Sounds Of Running


Running in the New York City marathon a few weeks ago I had ample time to think about the rhythms of running, pacing and tempo, on-the-course sound, and fatigue. Along with some 50,000 other runners, I lined up on the Staten Island bridge and then moved through the streets of Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, and finally, Manhattan. I was in Wave 1, which was full of cheery folks focused on keeping a sprightly pace.

For much of the race I held steady and thought about my tempo. While I took the Staten Island bridge too slow (it was cold and windy) and mile 2 too fast, I soon settled into a consistent groove. I compared my pace as measured by my GPS watch and the giant clocks every mile with my body’s sense of how the speed felt. It felt challenging. It also felt rather arbitrary–a pace determined by a hoped for finish time rather than by what felt agreeable moment by moment. And, depending on one’s temperament, so it should be: the marathon is a race against the immutable judgement of the ticking clock. Run boy, run!

Surprisingly, the bands and DJs playing music on the course did little to motivate me. Some of the bands (in parts of Brooklyn) were rhythmically rough around the edges, playing spirited but sloppy cover versions of songs like “Eye Of The Tiger” that annoyed even back in the day because such songs are rousing yet one-dimensional; other bands (in Harlem and the Bronx) played funk so super tight that I wanted to stop and listen. There was also a few too many bands playing doomsday hard rock music. Not the most inspirational repertoire, but maybe the power of this music motivates some runners? I don’t know. On the whole though, I didn’t pay too much attention to the bands. There was no time!

I did take notice of sound at two particular spots in the race. Crossing the 59th street bridge from Queens into Manhattan I heard the sounds of howling wind and runners’ footsteps. For that lonely uphill mile, running felt ancient again and I had an acute sense of the effort required to hold steady on a climb, fifteen miles into a journey. I also had the sensation of being a part of a strange tribe fleeing some unseen force, moving in sync and banded together in silent effort. A few miles later, in the Bronx, I noticed sound again as I came around a turn smack into the middle of a giant DJ rig whose volume was so loud I felt the music as an ocean wave carrying me forward on big beats and bass. (It was a Chris Brown song.) I instinctively turned on the jets, flying around the turn at an increased speed, so energized was I by the low frequencies. But once out of earshot of the DJ, I once again felt the physical demands of my pace more acutely. At mile 22, a thought: this is getting hard.

No matter what its soundscape, the last few miles of the marathon bring about a penetrating fatigue that alters one’s perception and chisels joy into something less euphoric and definitely…darker. Feeling this sensation I thought about the limitations of “training” plans for running, or anything for that matter (like preparing for a music performance, say). Training makes all the difference, but what it is needed is experience with the thing itself in context to truly understand the feeling–whether euphoric or dark–it brings about. With running, run for a few hours, then try to keep going fast on your depleted energy supply. The body says, “seriously?” Yet some people can do this with grace and speed. Amazing. In the final miles of the marathon, one’s body keeps going even while one’s mind starts conspiring. I found myself feeling time pass more slowly: When is this going to end? I’m slowing down a bit, glancing at my watch to calculate the time my reduced tempo might bring forth. Soon the race will be over, its finish its own reward.

For a phenomenology of running through images, sound, and text, watch my Running Music here.